How to Observe and Adapt, Inspired by Reggio Emilia

I recently attended the open house of a DC-area playgroup based on the Reggio Emilia method, an educational approach for young children that developed in Italy after World War II.

At the open house, the playgroup’s founder emphasized the importance of a child’s “third teacher,” his or her environment.  (The first and second teachers are parents and teachers.)  She explained that she observes the babies and toddlers as they play, then adapts the classroom environment prior to the next session to cater to the children’s current interests and development needs.

What a simple and seemingly intuitive move, and yet it’s one that I rarely do at home.  Sure, I put away gear as our (now-11-month-old) baby outgrows it, but I haven’t usually had a deeper strategy behind the way I arrange her environment on any particular morning.

After becoming aware that I could more consciously arrange Maya’s surroundings, though, I started paying more attention to what I set out for her.

When I noticed the baby sticking her hand into my glass of water and wiggling it around, I filled a pan with water and put it on the kitchen floor, where she played with it gleefully, splashing and exploring.

Later that week, a relative watched the baby and said she gravitated toward a pile of clean laundry–socks in particular.  My first reaction: Now we’re going to have to refold everything!  

My second reaction: The next morning, I presented her (the baby, that is) with a pile of socks, and she took great joy in tossing them in and out of her Bumbo seat, making little shrieking sounds.

Later that day, after I dumped blocks out of a basket, she began putting them back in, one after another, which is something she had not done before and which seemed inspired by the movements she’d done with the socks.

Then, the next day, I took the baby back to that pile of laundry.  (Even when we fold our laundry, we don’t get around to putting it away that often.)

She was indeed passionate about playing with the clothes, and they led to a whole range of games: the what-color-are-these-pants sorting game, the can-you-find-the-rabbit cloth game, and that old classic, the up-and-down are-they-hats-or-boxers game.

It’s not that hard to make minor changes to an environment based on a child’s behaviors.  Consider doing so for older children as well.  Is your child excited about knitting?  Arrange a basket of yarn and/or library books about knitting on your coffee table.

If your child likes to bake, provide a shelf in the cabinet for appealing baking supplies, and occasionally add a container of sprinkles or a new cookie cutter.

You can also use this method to facilitate academics.

Did your child struggle to find sharpened pencils yesterday afternoon?  Rearrange your office supplies so that a cup in the living room  holds several sharpened pencils, with a small pencil sharpener resting on a shelf nearby.

Figure out where a stack of looseleaf or construction paper would get the most use, and place it there.  Move, add, and remove components of your and your children’s environments to make the most of your space and their passion for learning

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